2012.05.02 She was Queen for a Day

Written by David Green.


Every year I go to Morenci’s senior class commencement as part of my photography duties. Every year when the band plays “Pomp and Circumstance” I look for the Queen to start crying. I await the crown and the red velvet robe and the parade of prizes.

Yes, I’m lying. It was only this morning that I learned that the old television show “Queen for a Day” played Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” But you can bet I’ll be thinking about it later this month on graduation day.

“Queen for a Day”—what an odd show. For those too young to know, for those too feeble to remember, here’s how it worked. By the way, I’m too feeble of mind to remember all these details. I had to do some reading.

The show opened with the host, Jack Bailey, looking out into the audience and asking, “Would you like to be queen for a day?” and the cheering began. And soon the crying began.

The contestants were introduced and they all had hard-luck stories to tell. Mr. Bailey, with his slicked back hair, started things off on a positive note, trying to keep things light at first.

Here’s an example that I read. Remember, this is from the 1950s and 60s. The contestant mentioned that she had a crippled child. Jack asked if the woman’s other child was all right. Yes, she answered, and he said “That’s good, so you only need special help for one child.”

He often dug a little deeper and learned how bad a guest’s life really was. They had been eating the maggots out of the rotting meat after the electricity was shut off, they walked to the park for a bathroom, they hadn’t had a bath in a month, etc.

The women often cried during this segment, and that was good because the queen would supposedly be chosen by an applause meter that gauged audience response.

When the Queen was named, out came the crown and the robe. She was seated on a velvet throne, given an enormous bouquet of roses, and as the prizes were introduced, there were likely to be many more tears.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to remember my reaction to this show. I suppose I watched it because it was on. I suppose I wanted to hear just how bad a life story could be. I suppose even then, at elementary school age, I mocked it just as I would today if forced to watch “Survivor” or whatever the current version is called.

Actually, “Queen for a Day” is often regarded as the Queen Mother of reality TV. It’s where it all began. 

Mark Evanier, who has written TV shows and writes about TV shows, refers to Queen as “one of the most ghastly shows ever written,” and he thinks he’s being kind with those words. He goes further: tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, degrading to the human spirit. I don’t remember all of that, but it wasn’t one of my favorites.

The reason I even thought about the show is due to something my brother Dan saw posted by a friend on Facebook:

“My grandma was “Queen for a Day” during the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. She was awarded tickets to go to the world’s fair, accounting classes to become a CPA, a Remington adding machine, a Speed Queen washer and dryer, a portable black and white TV, Samsonite luggage, a freezer, a Spiegel’s shopping spree, a mink stole, some jewelry, a watch, and a cocker spaniel dog.

“She ended up having to sell half of the stuff to pay for tax on the other half, and traded the mink for a used car.”

That’s a great little story and it made my sister, Diane, wonder what would be given for prizes if the show were on today. Certainly not an adding machine, although I suppose a really nice Remington could be worth a little cash on eBay.

The show was broadcast nationally from 1956 to 1964. Then it started up five years later, but only for a short run. The word got out that it was rigged. Actresses served as the beleaguered mothers and the winner was known in advance. 

I wonder if they always knew the winner in advance, or if they just happened to have a supply of wheelchairs or whatever was needed in stock?

I join with Jack Bailey in this closing: “I wish we could make every lady in America Queen for a Day. Good-bye!”

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